As military downsizes, debate sharpens over BRAC
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va./ Tribune News Service) | Published: February 11, 2015
If the Pentagon wants to convene another round of military base closings, it must clear a congressional subcommittee chaired by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland.
Wittman will be a tough sell. He says there is no appetite in Congress for another Base Realignment and Closure commission, known as BRAC. For him to be convinced, the Defense Department must do more homework.
However, Peninsula military installations could still face cuts without BRAC. The Army is thinning its ranks in hopes of becoming more nimble and flexible. That could mean fewer soldiers at Fort Eustis. At Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, cuts to the Air Combat Command headquarters have resulted in undetermined job losses.
Even more cuts could be on the way if Congress rebuffs a BRAC request. The defense budget introduced last week says "the administration will pursue alternative options to reduce this wasteful spending" without a formal base closing round. That suggests the possibility of a "backdoor BRAC," where bases are downsized but not closed.
And consider this fact: Virginia ended up a winner in the last round of base closings in 2005. The closing of Fort Monroe in Hampton was offset by gains in northern and central Virginia. Overall, the state gained 5,250 jobs, according to a state analysis.
It has prompted some advocates to see BRAC as the lesser of two evils. Even though it appears doomed in Congress for yet another year, some no longer see BRAC as a four-letter word.
Tim Ford is the CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, a Washington-based nonprofit that represents about 200 military communities. Among its missions is supporting cities and states that deal with base downsizing or realignment.
On BRAC: "It is not something we would want in any shape or form," he said.
Officials in military communities know that reductions are coming, he said. It will get worse if Congress doesn't find an alternative to automatic, across-the-board spending cuts slated to return in 2016.
"I think there is a growing sense that the decisions being made because there is not a BRAC are probably more painful to communities than if you had a BRAC," he said.
A national base-closing round is a formal process. It involves multiple public meetings. Communities have a chance to mobilize and state their case. And, pardon the pun, it provides closure.
"The bigger issue for communities is that they want some decisions made," Ford said.
For Ford, it is a choice between two bad options.
"We still come back to no one wanting to see a BRAC," he said. "But unless something changes, you can't question the reality that we're in."
Is best defense a good offense?
Last year, a state military commission turned heads when it recommended that Virginia should welcome another base-closing round..
The Commission on Military Installations and Defense Activities said Virginia could gain from BRAC as bases are closed and functions consolidated elsewhere. Virginia — and Hampton Roads in particular — has several high-profile commands that could serve as magnets, that argument goes.
The idea of playing offense and not just defense strikes a chord with two Hampton Roads officials who pay close attention to area military bases.
Bruce Sturk is the director of federal facilities support for the city of Hampton. He put a positive spin on a recent Air Force decision to put a new mission support center in San Antonio instead of Hampton. Langley Air Force Base made the list of finalists after the area congressional delegation mobilized and state officials became involved.
"We were carefully looked at for the mission support center command," he said. "We do have the capacity to grow. If there is a move to consolidate, we stand a very good chance of seeing more functions come to Hampton Roads."
Craig Quigley directs the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance. Playing defense while going on the offensive "would be part and parcel of any state strategy."
It was the dead of August 2010 when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates held a press conference to announce the Pentagon was closing Joint Forces Command, which had locations in Suffolk and Norfolk. JFCOM was not a base and fell outside the BRAC process.
Last summer, the Air Force said it would eliminate 742 positions at Air Combat Command headquarters as part of a downsizing and reorganization. Some of those positions were already vacant, and like JFCOM, it did not fall under BRAC.
But if Congress rebuffs BRAC and the Pentagon pursues "alternative measures," officials fear a sort of downsizing by press release. Quigley gave the example of the debate over whether to retire the Air Force's A-10 aircraft. There is much debate about whether to retire the aging aircraft, but nowhere is there a proposal to shutter the installations where the A-10 is based.
Retiring aircraft or deactivating squadrons could leave military towns with the worst of both worlds: a large base, exempt from local taxes, and without the economic punch of thousands of soldiers who come into town to spend money.
"It would be a concern here and everywhere," said Quigley.
Sturk knows what happens when BRAC comes to town. The last base-closing round in 2005 closed Fort Monroe in Hampton. It took an emotional and economic toll on the city, but redevelopment efforts took hold. Today, a portion of Fort Monroe is a national monument under the National Park Service while debate continues over other redevelopment efforts.
The debate over Fort Monroe's future hasn't been easy, but Sturk said it beats having a hollowed-out Army post with little activity. In the post-BRAC world, "the hurt is there, but we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Before BRAC, do this
Wittman sits on the House Armed Services Committee and is chairman of the subcommittee on readiness. That makes his panel the first stop for any BRAC proposal in the House.
Last year, he held a hearing before the administration formally proposed the idea, as if to emphasize congressional opposition. Wittman said recently he wants to see two things before another round of base closings is considered.
First, the Pentagon should show Congress where it is spending too much. He does not buy the notion that cuts should be automatically equal across the services.
Second, he wants to see how BRAC can save money over the next five years. That window is important because the Pentagon submits, along with its budget, a five-year defense plan. Any savings realized outside that window really isn't accounted for, he said.
Wittman said he understands the fears of those who worry about backdoor actions.
"But you would still want to do BRAC in a thoughtful and rational way," he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine said in statement that he has "concerns about instituting another BRAC round, which would cause anxiety and inflict harm on communities connected to any affected bases while costing billions of dollars to implement up-front."
Sen. Mark R. Warner served as governor of Virginia during the last BRAC round in 2005. Although Fort Monroe closed, an intense lobbying effort saved Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.
Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said, "The best way to avoid individual command closures is to make sure we avoid another round of sequester cuts. There seems to be growing bipartisan consensus on that, and we'll have to work hard in coming months to make sure we eliminate the threat of another series of across-the-board Pentagon spending cuts."
A two-way process
Anthony Principi was chairman of the 2005 BRAC commission that resulted in shuttering Fort Monroe and the threatened closure of Oceana. He points to the Virginia Beach air base as example of how the process can work.
"We reversed a number of decisions," he said. "We challenged (the Defense Department's) cost. That, to me, is the advantage of BRAC," he said.
He agrees with local officials that Virginia and Hampton Roads could gain from another round of closings.
"I think Virginia is very well positioned to withstand another BRAC," he said. "I can't say for sure that something would not be closed or realigned, but there are very important assets in Virginia — especially in Tidewater."
Both Principi and Ford, who heads the defense communities group, understand that base closings are a tough vote for many members of Congress. Principi called Wittman a "terrific, terrific legislator" and it's difficult to openly call for BRAC.
"At the same time, DOD is pleading for BRAC," he said. "They just have too much infrastructure."
"It will be something that occurs," Ford said, "but no one is going to embrace it."
Reductions through the years
Although military downsizing is real concern in Hampton Roads, history has shown it doesn't always turn out as badly as predicted.
- 2005: The Base Realignment and Closure commission results in the closing of Fort Monroe in Hampton. Oceana Naval Air Station is saved from closure due to intense lobbying. Although 2005 BRAC rattled Hampton Roads, it made Virginia a net winner. The state gained 5,250 defense jobs, thanks largely to additions at Fort Belvoir, Fort Lee and Marine Corps Base Quantico.
- August 2010: Defense Secretary Robert Gates stuns the region by announcing that Joint Forces Command in Suffolk would close. Initial job loss predictions surged to 10,000. When the dust settled a year later, some of JFCOM's functions remained, and about 1,900 defense civilians lost their jobs, although many were expected to gain employment elsewhere.
- July 2014: An Army planning document says Fort Eustis could lose nearly 4,200 if deep budget cuts return in 2016. At a listening session last month, an Army colonel said no decisions have been made.
- July 2014: The Air Force announces plans to cut 742 positions at Air Combat Command headquarters, located at Langley Air Force Base, as part of an overall downsizing and reorganization. However, a number of positions were already vacant, so the impact on people was less than that. So far, the Air Force has not specified the number of people who actually lost jobs.
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